Just more than one month stands between voters and Election Day 2012. As people peruse political flyers and competing candidate handouts, most notice the political party line. Not everyone wants voters focused on labels, though, and a Sioux Falls gathering is designed to distract from partisan politics.
They call it the No Party Party. Lively chatter proves festive conversation isn’t banned. Rather political party labels are off-limits.
"So just kind of a good casual meet-and-greet, check the party at the door," Mike Knudson says. "And I like that, too, because I really believe in the message I’m delivering. It’s not so much about party but about progress and moving forward in South Dakota."
Knudson is a state legislative candidate in Sioux Falls. He helped craft the No Party Party. Knudson stands next to political paraphernalia, most notably his red-white-and-blue campaign sign. In fact, much of the low-lit lounge is themed with patriotic colors. But party-goers don’t see the "r-word" or the "d-word" or even the "i-word." Betsy Homan appreciates a little bit of mystery.
"I think so many times we get caught up to one party to where, I’m going to vote a straight ticket instead of vote the issues and what their views are and do you agree with them, whether they are D or R, depending on their issues," Homan says. "So that’s what I enjoy – getting to know the person and where they stand, because I don’t vote a straight ticket. I look at the person in each individual race and see where they stand."
Homan says the No Party Party offers opportunities for one-on-one conversations with candidates. She and Andrew Eitreim are both young professionals. Their interest in the event inspires fellow rotary club members to attend. Eitreim says removing party labels works for him, because he doesn’t have a strong allegiance to a specific group.
"I think the No Party Party concept is great," Eitreim says. "I think it’s nice to have conversations that aren’t dealing with one side or the other and just be able to talk about various issues and not worry about party lines."
Eitreim agrees a get-together with so many candidates is an easy opportunity to compare and contrast people fighting over the same seat. This week, about two dozen candidates participate, including Mark Johnston.
"If you like speed dating for political junkies, this was the place to be tonight," Johnston says.
Johnston is a state lawmaker running for re-election, and he’s one of the people who created and planned the gathering. Casual introductions and discussions dominate the party, but candidates each get a chance to address the crowd – without using political party terms, or else. Each candidate gets exactly one minute to talk to guests at the party. If they go over their time limit, the hosts say they'll use an air horn.
Under that threat, an impressive number of legislative candidates manage to keep their language appropriate and their stump speeches concise. Some deliberately limit their talk. Others cut it excruciatingly close. Then some just can’t handle the 60 second limit.
The rare screech of the air horn entertains the crowd. After all the candidates step away from the microphone, party-goers slip back into the easy open-house feel. Mark Johnston says the night is a success.
"They love it. This has been a great event," Johnston says. "As we sit here now, we’re outside the venue because it’s so loud in there."
Throughout the night, about 200 people mingle, munch on goodies, and sip signature drinks made with blue liquor that fades to red near the bottom of their glasses - a visual ripe with metaphor. Mark Johnston says anyone who wants to craft state law has an obligation to candidly talk with voters of all political persuasions.
"This has been a total bi-partisan effort even working to get this No party Party arranged. My friend Mike Knudson – actually, we’re neighbors. We share a backyard," Johnston says. "He’s a Democrat. I’m a Republican. He’s running for the House; I’m in the Senate. But he’s still my friend and still my neighbor. And so that’s kind of how we do things here in South Dakota and that’s how we do things here in Sioux Falls."
"It’s definitely a question even as I’m out knocking doors. Not necessarily always the first question, but it definitely comes up. Are you a Republican or a Democrat?" Knudson says. "Again, regardless, well, is that really, you decide strictly off that?"
Knudson says he understands some opinions tend to align with one party or another, but he and fellow No Party planners push for voters to cast ballots based on their beliefs, not on who boasts the donkey or the elephant.
The scene at the event melds young ideas with aging political traditions – take away a few partisan labels. As the night closes and people step out the door, signs remind them there ain’t no party like a No Party Party.